Press Council seeks statutory body status

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2001, 12:00am

The Hong Kong Press Council is trying to turn itself into a statutory body so it cannot be sued when it criticises newspapers for unethical reporting.

It is understood that a draft private member's bill will be discussed by the watchdog next Wednesday. Details may be announced as early as next week if a consensus is reached.

The council has been seeking 'qualified privilege' - the exemption from being sued - for criticising media excesses. Under the preliminary framework, the council would have to become a statutory body before it qualified for such immunity. But its powers to discipline offending newspapers would still be limited to asking them to apologise.

Newspapers reporting the council's verdict on particular cases would also be exempt from legal action.

To eliminate suggestions that by becoming a statutory body it will be open to government interference, the council says it will broaden its membership and state clearly that members would not be appointed by the Government or Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

An independent legislator of high standing in their own profession - such as Audrey Eu Yuet-mee or Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee - is likely to be asked to sponsor the bill. Members hope the blueprint can be introduced to the Legislative Council for scrutiny early next year.

But legislator Cyd Ho Sau-lan, of the Frontier, warned that the move could invite interference in press freedom. She also had reservations about granting the council qualified privilege, which is currently restricted to a few bodies such as the Consumer Council and the Ombudsman's Office.

She suggested the council instead set up a litigation fund to fight defamation lawsuits with a charge of an extra 20 cents levied on each newspaper sold.

However, council director-general David Wong Chung-tung dismissed fears that by becoming a statutory body the watchdog would come under government control.

He said future members would be 'self-appointed'. 'We won't welcome any government appointment,' he said.

The Press Council, which comprises 11 newspapers and representatives of the education and other sectors, was set up last year to police breaches of media ethics.